Monday, March 15, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 4

Saturday night/Sunday morning was Daylight Savings time change--spring ahead. I don't know if anyone forget and ended up an hour late for their first film of the day. For my part I remembered to set my clocks ahead, but also forgot my first film was at 1:00 pm, not noon. I realized my error when I was on the BART, and had to laugh at myself for being the only doofus to be an hour early on Sunday. So I didn't even catch a bus from the BART. I had a leisurely stroll, stopped for some Thai food at a restaurant called (no kidding) Thai Stick (it wasn't very good), and was still at the Clay theater about 45 minutes early. I ended up spending the whole day at the Clay, and it was a pretty good day.

First up, a shorts program What We Talk About When.... It was a program of medium length shorts by well established filmmakers. They were universally beautiful in the cinematography, and also tended to require patience and attention (for you haters out there, that means "slow" or "boring"):
A LETTER TO UNCLE BOONMEE (dir. Apitchatpong Weerasthekul): Repetition is used to evoke reincarnation in this beautiful and poetic letter that is as much to the residents of Nabua, Thailand as it is to Uncle Boonmee.
MADAM BUTTERFLY (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang): Pearly Chua plays a Madam Butterfly who is trapped in a bus station in Kuala Lumpur. Without enough cash for a bus ticket (although everyone says she can ride even though she's a little short), she tries to call her boyfriend to come pick her up. This was largely improvised and was Tsai's entry into the 20 Puccini film project (20 films on Puccini commissioned by the Lucca Film Festival)
CRY ME A RIVER (dir. Jia Zhang-ke): College friends reunite for their professor's birthday party.
LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (dir. Hong Sang-soo): Hong Sang-soo (who also directed the feature LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL, which was my last film of the night) always has a sly sense of humor, even when telling a story of the unpleasantness that happens when young woman Misook travels to Jeonju alone to meet her friend and her former lover.


Next up was the Freida Lee Mock show, featuring her new documentary LT. WATADA. But first, a bonus short from her daughter Jessica Sanders, GEORGE AND BRAD IN BED. In the brief time that gay marriage was legal in California, one of the highest profile newlyweds were George Takei and his partner of over 2 decades, Brad Altman. Jessica interviews the newlyweds in bed in an homage to the John and Yoko "bed-in". They're a lovely couple.

And then LT. WATADA, a 40 minute long-ish but officially "short" documentary (it sort of exists in the nebulous range where it's not really short but not feature-length either). Lt. Ehren Watada gained fame (and in some circles, infamy) as the only active-duty officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq, publicly announcing that he believed the war was entered into on fraudulent grounds and is illegal. He begged to sent to Afghanistan instead. Many denounced him as a coward (although he refused an essentially safe desk job in Iraq) and a traitor while the anti-war crowd hailed him as a hero with the courage to stand up for what's right (and they point to the Geneva conventions and Nuremberg rulings to point out that he has a duty to refuse orders which are illegal. After all, he never swore an oath to the President, he swore an oath to the Constitution to protect the nation against all enemies--external and internal). It's pretty easy to tell the allegiances of the film, although that could also be attributed to the fact that Freida Lee Mock had almost unlimited access to Lt. Watada and very little access to the opposing views. His attackers are mostly shown as sound-bite flag-wavers rallying outside his court martial. While he makes reasoned debate for his position, the opposition is shown holding signs that say "Honk for our troops. Fart for Watada." Not the most intellectual argument, and it's a shame because I'm sure there are well-reasoned arguments against him. But I'll admit I'm against the war, and I see him as a hero. So a hero piece on him fit me just fine.

Afterwards there was an extended interview of Freida Lee Mock by outgoing festival director Chi-hui Yang. She was an engaging, feisty interview. The best part is when they were talking about how she does her research before an interview and then she showed off that research by turning the tables and interviewing Chi-hui. In fact, she asked the question I'd been meaning to ask him--after becoming the youngest festival director ever and serving for a decade, why was he leaving? And in fact, she already knew the answer--he's taking time off to write a book about Asian American cinema. Which sounds pretty interesting.

Then we returned to the recurring festival theme of food (especially Indian food) with COOKING WITH STELLA. It's a mostly enjoyable comedy about Canadian diplomats in India with quite a few curve-balls in it. The first twist is that the Indian-Canadian wife Maya (Lisa Ray) actually knows very little about Indian culture and is very firmly Canadian, while her husband Michael (Don McKellar) is fascinated by the culture and wants to get out from the confines of the embassy grounds. Second twist--she's the diplomat, he's the stay-at-home (with their baby daughter) husband. In fact, he has put his cooking career on hold for her, but while he's here he's determined to absorb the local flavor and bring it back home with him. Enter the house maid/cook, Stella (Seema Biswas). She's loyal in her own way--in that she takes care of the family while stealing from them. That's what she does for every family. But when Michael takes an interest in the kitchen and asks Stella to be his guru, it puts everything in a spin. Worse yet, they decide they need a nanny for their baby, so they hire Tannu (Shriya Saran). It's her first job, earning money for her sick father, and she's actually honest, which totally screws up Stella's plans. And that's the third (and most confounding) twist. Stella's likable, despite being a thief. Tannu is likewise likable, and so when Stella schemes to bring Tannu into her little operation, it's hard to tell who you're supposed to root for. I suppose it's not giving too much away to say it doesn't end quite the way I expected, and I'm still thinking about whether I like how it ended. Oh yeah, there's also a major romantic subplot that was a little too perfect.

And finally, I ended the night on the hilarious LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL. It's easy to accuse Hong Sang-soo of being ironically, mockingly auto-biographical (he has a habit of making his main characters film directors). And in fact it's hard not to see LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL that way. Koo Gyung-nam is an arthouse director with a following in Southeast Asia and some film festival credentials. He's famous enough that he is asked to be on the jury for the Jecheon International Film Festival (which is a real festival) he arrives and immediately causes problems. He sleeps through the films he should be judging, he stays up late drinking, he is openly (drunkenly) jealous of a colleague's success, and he (drunkenly) hits on a famous actress. Barely escaping the festival with his dignity (somewhat) intact, he heads to Jeju island to be a guest at the college where a friend is teaching film. And there...he does the exact same thing (parallel or repeated action is another trademark of Hong Sang-soo). He drinks a lot (there's even a repeated line "I didn't want to say anything, but since we're all drinking..."), he covets his friend's wife (his former lover) and creates all sorts of problems. In less gifted hands, this movie would be nothing but painful awkwardness or slapstick silliness. But in the master's hands, it's funny and incisive, the deconstruction of the drinking thinker (the "alcollectual"?)

Total Running Time: 368 minutes
My Total Minutes: 178,008
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